A portrait of the magician Harry Houdini

Going Mental: Tips, Tricks & Tactics of Mentalism

Whether you’re a fan of “The Mentalist” or “Psych” (my personal favorite), the world of mentalism is one of acute observation, sensory awareness, intuition, and good ol’ delivery. So when Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps astonishes crowds with his seemingly keen intellect, there may very well be more to it than being a human encyclopedia.

In fact, there are many types of mentalism that capture the imagination. Mentalism at its core is a performing art. Left at that description, the audience should expect a show. But, individuals throughout history have actually claimed some sort of supernatural ability, which often led to claims of fraud.

A portrait of the magician Harry Houdini

Harry Houdini

Taken at face value, mentalism as performance art generally falls into three categories:

  1. Magicians — individuals who, through sleight of hand, deliberately mislead their audience into believing the unbelievable. Famous magicians throughout the decades include Harry Houdini, David Blaine and David Copperfield.
  2. Psychics and Tarot Card Readers — individuals who serve as mediums to the afterlife, which may or may not be influenced by a person’s body language in response to posed questions. Famous psychics include Uri Geller, John Edward and The Psychic Twins, Terry and Linda Jamison.
  3. Performing Mentalists — individuals who perform mental feats in front of large audiences influenced largely by the psychology of audience members rather than impressive tricks. This is the category that best describes Mr. Memory in The 39 Steps, though he does seem to rely on what we would consider to be a photographic memory. Recent examples include Kevin Micoud, Oz Pearlman, and Colin Cloud all of whom competed on “America’s Got Talent.”
A portrait of J. Randall Brown, a ghostly figure of a woman hovers above him

Mentalist J. Randall Brown

Mentalism was first recorded in 1572 when magician Girolamo Scotto performed sleight-of-hand tricks and grew in popularity into the 1800s when John Randall Brown became the first mentalist to perform a mind-reading act for a live audience. While the days of circus sideshows are over, some mentalists continue to draw large crowds at popular destinations such as Las Vegas or on competitions including “America’s Got Talent.”

But what tricks do you have to have up your sleeve to achieve that level of acclaim in society today, where every move is recorded, dissected, and analyzed to discover reveal the deception?

According to several sources, there are three ways to hone your abilities:

  1. Strengthen Observation Skills. Spend some time people watching and mentally note what you observe — what was someone wearing, did they have any distinguishing characteristics, did they possess any noticeable mannerisms?
  2. Study Human Behavior. You don’t have to have a college degree, but reading up on psychology, watching online tutorials and learning the power of persuasion may set you up for success.
  3. Practice Reading People. According to Psychology Today, it’s important to observe body language cues (i.e. appearance, posture, movements, expressions), listen to your intuition and sense emotional energy.

When you’re ready to experiment, give these tricks a try:

Courtesy of mantelligence.com

  1. Ask the audience to think of a number between 1 and 10 and multiply it by 9.
  2. Ask them to add the digits together and subtract 5.
  3. Ask the audience to assign each letter of the alphabet a number starting with A as 1, B as 2, C as 3, etc. Tell them to stop when they reach their number.
  4. Now ask them to think of a country that begins with their letter. Since there aren’t many countries that start with “D”, most people will choose Denmark.
  5. Then ask them to choose an animal with the next letter of the alphabet (which for everyone will be E),most people will come up with elephant.
  6. Ask them to think of the color of the animal.
  7. Finally, guess out loud that they’re thinking of gray elephants from Denmark!

HOW DOES IT WORK? Starting with questions 1 and 2, their final answer will always be 4 no matter what. After that, this trick relies on playing probabilities, meaning just choosing the most likely answer. Since you know that most people would pick Denmark and elephant, you can seem like you can read minds.

Courtesy of magicmentalism.com

For this particular trick, you’re going to have to memorize a short equation. Here are the steps to tricking everyone using the Invisible Dice method:

  1. Ask your volunteer to roll imaginary dice to get two imaginary numbers
  2. Without telling you, make them choose one imaginary number and double it (x 2)
  3. Next, tell them to add 5 to their answer (+ 5)
  4. Tell them to multiply the answer by 5 (x5)
  5. Ask them to add the result to the second imaginary number
  6. Finally, ask them to tell you the answer out loud.
  7. Guess the number they began with

HOW DOES IT WORK? For you to guess properly, all you have to do is subtract 25 (-25) from their answer. The two digits of the answer you come up with are the numbers they started with. For example, let’s say they picked the numbers 4 and 3.

  1. Double the number 4 (4 x 2 = 8)
  2. Add 5 to the number (8 + 5 = 13)
  3. Multiply the answer by 5 (13 x 5 = 65)
  4. Add the result to the other imaginary number (65 + 3 = 68)
  5. Subtract 25 (68 – 25 = 43)
  6. Those two digits are the imaginary numbers they began with

Courtesy of mentalismguide.com

  1. Write “prediction” on the back of a single card and place it in a dark-colored, 5×7 envelope in front of the audience. Don’t show what the card is. Show the audience that there is nothing else in that envelope.
  2. Take a full deck of shuffled cards and show the audience that the cards are all different before the next step.
  3. Place them one at a time, face down in a pile, and ask the volunteer to tell you when they would like you to stop. When they say “stop,” take that card in your hand and place it into the envelope, as well – without looking at it.
  4. They will match, and the mentalist looks like he was able to predict the exact card the volunteer would choose.

HOW DOES IT WORK: What no one knows is that you will have pre-made a simple envelope with a fake back on it, so you can hide the card you are going to predict (which will, of course, match your prediction), and you are going to hide the card the volunteer chose behind that false back. Watch the video for full details.